Keith Cornock Smith had a passion for nature and its wild and beautiful places. The North American landscape inspired him for years. His striking canvases show us a world of rugged peaks, mountain lakes and snow swept valleys. K.C.'s paintings draw the viewer in, inspiring the awe that one feels when first seeing a mist covered mountain lake at sunrise, or the majesty of an elk, suddenly aware of your presence, pausing briefly before slipping into the cover of the forest.
Keith spent his life traveling the backcountry of British Columbia, Alberta and the western United States, learning his craft and creating paintings that met his standards. K.C. described himself as a painter not an artist. The standards he used came from long experience, and the ability to know when a painting wasn't working, abandon it and start over.
Keith's greatest influences were Carl Rungius, who he met in Banff, Alberta in 1954, and the Canadian Group of Seven, but Keith was an individual with a style all his own. When a painting was right, when he was satisfied with it, he said it had "power and guts".
Becoming a landscape painter and knowing when a painting was right took a lifetime. Keith was born in Dauphin, Manitoba, in 1924 and spent his early years in Depression era British Columbia. The Depression gave him a deeper appreciation for when things were going well. This positive outlook is also what kept him painting. His paintings were about "putting down in paint the things that are important" to him.
Wilderness inspired him from the beginning, ever since his childhood days collecting arrowheads around Vancouver, British Columbia. He sketched mountain landscape while he worked as a camp cook for a trail guide outfit, and his love of the great outdoors inspired him to join one of the first environmentalist groups; The League of Conservationists. He later worked as a Park Naturalist in British Columbia, which allowed him to further indulge his passion for nature, honing his craft of capturing wildlife and scenes as he saw them.
Keith talked about his love for open uninhabited wilderness and that magical feeling that comes when you know you're the only one there. Keith was an avid photographer and it is from those images that many of his paintings were born. He was careful to explain that the photographs weren't taken literally though, they were only the seed of an idea for a painting.
Keith was a natural artist. That was the case since he was about eight years old, sketching trains, cars, trucks and horses. It was many years from those first drawings to his first paintings. The Second World War started and Keith served in the Canadian Navy and saw action in the Pacific Theater while on loan to a US Navy task force commanded by Admiral Halsey.
When the war ended, Keith like other servicemen was looking for work. In 1946 he found a job as an apprentice sign painter, later working throughout the British Columbia interior and enjoying the wilderness and travel. Along the way, he sketched, made notes and developed his talent. Soon, he felt he could expand his horizons and landed a job painting movie marquees. One of his most memorable paintings, the one K.C. liked to talk about, was a twelve-foot high image of Orson Welles at the Studio Theater in Vancouver, British Columbia.
By the 1950's Keith was traveling the western USA, living and working in Fresno, and later Laguna Beach, where he worked as a journeyman sign painter. In 1952 Keith married Arlene Legault and began painting formally. They continued to travel the backwoods extensively, later with their three children. Arlene says that their children were of school age before they realized that other children did not live out of a camper and claim all nature as their home!
Keith pushed himself to challenge his viewers. Experience taught him to experiment, but he also knew what worked for him. Rather than working on several paintings at once, Keith preferred to focus on one canvas at a time, giving it all his concentration and attention. He'd tell you that it was about technique and feeling as much as subject, that brushwork was as important as composition. He experimented with color, always looking for new ways to mix, grade and layer. Everyday, K.C. explored the potential of his technique. His paintings reflect his warm, kind personality and his quick sense of humor. It is these qualities and more that Keith brought to those who knew him well.
Keith & his wife Arlene eventually settled on Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada, where he lived and painted until his death in July 2000. Keith always spoke with passion about his work. He said, "It challenges me, but it's a gratifying and fulfilling experience."